Review | Nex Machina: Death Machine

With this brutal and stylish follow up to PS4 launch exclusive Resogun, Housemarque may have achieved the impossible. Not only have they improved upon the game that made them famous, they may also have created the most enjoyable and relevant twin stick shooter of the current generation. Read on to find out more about Nex Machina: Death Machine.

My earliest experience of both twin stick and bullet hell shooters was on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The 1980’s equivalent of austerity meant that I didn’t actually get my NES until the Christmas of 1992, and because by then the Super Nintendo and Mega Drive were already duking it out, there were lots of cheap NES games for me to choose from. Smash TV and Parodius became a couple of my favourites, and with lots of time on my hands I worked my way through the ultra hard levels (often with friends) over and over again.

Nex Machina is very clearly a modern variant on the classic twin stick arena shooter, but as you progress, it becomes more and more about pattern recognition, hand to eye coordination and coping with an insane amount of on screen threat. Where the restricted movement of an arena shooter meets the chaos of a traditional bullet hell effort, frustration has often been the outcome. Mercifully (and perhaps most favourably to its credit) Nex Machina rarely takes players to those dark places, whilst still managing to deliver an uncommonly intense and absolutely punishing experience.

There are four difficulty levels, with the fourth being unlocked by completing the third. Ninety nine percent of players (including me) will never unlock that last difficulty level though, because even on the lowest setting, Nex Machina is a very hard game. The game supports cooperative local multiplayer, but there are no online options (except the sharing of scoreboards) and most of my time was spent playing solo. In a clear nod to Tron, the player enters the first arena on a futuristic motorbike and is immediately beset by enemies. As in almost every twin stick shooter, the left stick is used to move, and the right (or the face buttons) to shoot in the direction it is pushed. There is a dodge button and a special weapon button, and that’s all you need to know.

There’s no tutorial, and what we know about the story in Nex Machina is delivered solely through sources outside the game. There isn’t so much as a cut scene or a page of dialogue to inform us about what is about to happen, but to save you the bother of searching elsewhere, I’ll tell you now. Basically, humanity has become so dependant on technology that we barely take the time to look up at our surroundings. As a result, robotic servants have quietly become self-aware, and our hero arrives at the exact moment when open rebellion breaks out, forcing him or her to singlehandedly destroy the aggressors.

There are five distinct regions in Nex Machina, and each of them is broken into varying numbers of individual stages that must be cleared one by one in order to advance to the next area. Within each stage, there can be up to six other humans, each of whom wanders around staring blankly at a mobile device whilst specific robot enemies hunt them down and kill them. You can rescue them for extra points, but doing so will usually place even more of a demand on your reflexes and ability to dance between enemies whilst administrating a lethal dose of hot lead. At the end of each region is a boss fight, and although each of them is thematic and fun, they do vary wildly in terms of difficulty level. Make no mistake though, the last three will test you dearly, and the fourth in particular almost made me smash my PS4 into as many bits as one of the games’ robot revolutionaries.

Whilst there is relatively little variety in the way each region looks (because anything that stands out too much would be a distraction,) Nex Machina is still a fantastic looking game. There is a decent variety of enemy types and each is easily distinguishable, and the various projectiles that come at the player are highlighted clearly in pink. The only time I found this to be an issue was with various lasers, which for some reason I often registered as part of the background, or at the very least, as non-threatening. A special shoutout for Nex Machina should also go to the music, which is a pulsating mix of hard house and techno that drives the action superbly, albeit whilst adding further to the nerve-shredding nature of the gameplay.

Nex Machina is both new and familiar. It shares the same roots as classic games like Robotron and Smash TV in the early levels, before morphing from a pure arena shooter into a clean, modern take on your worst bullet hell nightmare. The controls are crisp and responsive, and use of the dodge button and special weapons provides players with the ability to elevate themselves from being average players to exceptional ones. In that sense, Nex Machina is a game that is easy to learn, but difficult to master, although it is always capable of killing you in a myriad of different ways.

Nex Machina is a game that brings back fond memories of some of my favourite childhood games, but at the same time it feels entirely relevant today. From the social commentary about the reliance people have on their mobile devices, to the sleek and ultra modern graphics, Nex Machina is entirely comfortable straddling video game history. It delivers solid, classic gameplay with minor modern innovations that enhance the experience rather than revolutionise it. I lament the lack of an online multiplayer mode and perhaps a few more regions, but overall it’s a bloody hard, but bloody good game. It is, in fact, my favourite twin-stick shooter since Smash TV.

Nex Machina is available on both PS4 and Steam.

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